Sunday, 24 May 2009

Under the Rule of Invisible Agents

I came across a great article by Michael Shermer earlier today.

Why People Believe Invisible Agents Control the World”.

Souls, spirits, ghosts, gods, demons, angels, aliens, intelligent designers, government conspirators, and all manner of invisible agents with power and intention are believed to haunt our world and control our lives. Why?”

This is a subject that I am fascinated by and I am interested to know why also. I just finished reading his book “Why People Believe Weird Things”.

It was brilliant and rather thought provoking. By weird things he means beliefs of the paranormal, alien abduction, witch craze, cult, creationism and conspiracy kind, though he does point out that “Weird things are like pornography - difficult to define but obvious when you see them”. It's not easy to say what qualifies as a weird thing.

I rather liked the book. He seems fair in taking the time to look at both sides of whatever he is investigating and has the courtesy to meet the people related to what he is trying to debunk and hear their side of the story. He also is honest to point out things they say he agrees with - no one after all is 100% wrong or right. That would be my preferred approach to trying to ascertain the truth about anything. It's a little off putting that one of the chapters is called “Why Smart People Believe Weird Things” which sort of implies before you read it that it's stupid people that do and that the reference to intelligent people is sort of like an additional curiosity as to why “smart people” would even bother. But that's not the case. It would seem it's actually intelligent people who are susceptible since they are usually able to defend and back up why they believe something with a well thought out argument that sounds plausible, whether the belief turns out to be true or not. Mensa members apparently are easy to fool because they are so intent on looking for the intelligent answer to things they miss the subtle clues that are simple that would lead them in the right direction.

But the main thing is patterns. Basically he says we believe unusual things because we, thanks to evolution, are pattern seeking mammals devoid of “baloney detectors” in our brains to detect accurately the difference between true or false patterns (also thanks to evolution. If ever I needed proof that there is no intelligent designer and that evolution is blind this is it!) Pattern seeking is invaluable in understanding and interacting with our world and helps us avoid danger since it's a quick way sometimes to throw together a judgement but it doesn't always portray the truth accurately.

We make two types of errors: a type I error, or false positive, is believing a pattern is real when it is not; a type II error, or false negative, is not believing a pattern is real when it is. If you believe that the rustle in the grass is a dangerous predator when it is just the wind (a type I error), you are more likely to survive than if you believe that the rustle in the grass is just the wind when it is a dangerous predator (a type II error). Because the cost of making a type I error is less than the cost of making a type II error and because there is no time for careful deliberation between patternicities in the split-second world of predator-prey interactions, natural selection would have favored those animals most likely to assume that all patterns are real."

So believing in something weird that isn't true probably results as a by-product of something our minds do naturally all the time and then failing to bother to check for the validity of the belief later. I mean how often do we comb through our own heads searching for things we take for granted as true and testing them out to see if they are or not? Hardly ever I think. It's not something that springs to mind when you crawl out of bed in the morning. Putting “check brain for extraneous stupid ideas” on the day's To Do List probably isn't a priority! Taking things for granted, making assumptions, accepting stereotypes, gossip and Media half truths is by contrast very easily done without too much conscious effort. I think most of us have heads stuffed full of oddball ideas we have never challenged. I am 100% certain I do. This blog is just one example!

He is of course also talking about agency detection in his article, not just finding patterns. That would be assigning “predator” to the rustling bush and assuming it's intention “it's going to jump out and eat me for lunch”. Or perhaps bigger things. Assigning the Universe, which appears so intricately complex, an agent to control it - God, Zeus, The Flying Spaghetti Monster, Pink Unicorns, some dude with a long white beard... Or perhaps a conspiracy - looking at your fellow man and assuming some elite few are out to control the masses with some cleverly devised secret plot that is so complicated it's hard for one person to comprehend never mind a group of people to co-ordinate with an effortless cohesion that spans centuries!

We do something other animals do not do. As large-brained hominids with a developed cortex and a theory of mind—the capacity to be aware of such mental states as desires and intentions in both ourselves and others—we infer agency behind the patterns we observe in a practice I call “agent-icity”: the tendency to believe that the world is controlled by invisible intentional agents. The Intelligent Designer is said to be an invisible agent who created life from the top down. Aliens are often portrayed as powerful beings coming down from on high to warn us of our impending self-destruction. Conspiracy theories predictably include hidden agents at work behind the scenes, puppet masters pulling political and economic strings as we dance to the tune of the Bilderbergers, the Roth­schilds, the Rockefellers or the Illuminati. Even the belief that government can impose top-down measures to rescue the economy is a form of agenticity, with President Barack Obama being touted as “the one” with almost messianic powers who will save us.”

The aliens one provides me with endless hours of amusement. If aliens are so intelligent and sophisticated that they can travel all the way to our planet in their shiny spacecraft to warn us of impending doom to our planet don't you think they'd bother to at least leave a crop circle in OUR language so we can understand it! Crop circles have been turning up for years and no one has ever decoded one so you'd think these aliens would have gotten the message by now we don't go around talking to each other by drawing geometric shapes in the fields and certainly not ones the size of houses! With the ferocity that we humans ramble we'd run out of fields in 5 seconds if we did that and there would have to be a Twitter style “big whale being flown around by little birds” outage crop circle to tell us to hold on until the grass grows back! How could an extraterrestrial species apparently so observant they can notice all our other deficiencies as humans and predict our future fail to observe how we communicate? It also seems absurd we assume their spaceship technology would be vastly superior to anything we have and yet they choose marking in grass over Twitter! The other amusing thing is why anyone believes they are messages telling us to clean up our act anyway. For all we know the aliens might have some other message in mind like “Dear Earthlings, your planet has been earmarked for removal from the universe to make way for a super intergalactic highway", or "Your planet has the best pizza. We'd like two Hawaiian pizzas with crispy base and fries to go please."

As for conspiracy theories. Those are a bit more tricky depending on how plausible they seem. Some seem completely ridiculous whereas others sound more believable. But exactly how humans are supposed to be able to collude together for some evil in such complex and intricate ways cohesively over huge periods of time I am not sure. Even more extraordinary is how anyone can have the sort of mind that notices these patterns, let alone write whole 500 page books about them. Or perhaps they simply make them up or mash together lots of previous theories they happen to believe in or think other people will? I tried reading one a while ago. It basically just amounted to excessive lists, page after page, of people's names and their ranks in organisations and you were supposed to glean from this that something dodgy is going on. Even the most vague associations between people were included in the plot. (some secretary's, friend's, husband's, dog's, dog handler's, cousin's, colleague's, flatmate's, boyfriend's passing acquaintance... ) If this is all it takes to assume a conspiracy then you could make yourself seriously paranoid just by reading the phone book and connecting the imaginary dots! Perhaps it really amounts to nothing more than what Shermer is talking about. Do these things really mean anything or is it just a case of seeing patterns in some information that suits the writer's motive and then filling in the blanks intuitively and erroneously and conjuring invisible agents to go with? One thing I would expect is that real conspirators would not be able to stay secret over a long period of time without at least someone getting the guilts and spilling the beans. As Richard Roeper points out in his book “Debunked”:

One of the most incredible things about all the big-time conspiracy theories percolating on the Internet is that the so-called conspiracies remain secret, even with so many people asking so many questions about so many allegedly suspicious activities. Nobody involved in, say, the assassination of John F. Kennedy, or the fake moon landing, or the attacks of 9/11, ever breaks ranks and produces a smoking gun. Hundreds if not thousands of people would have to be in on these world-shattering conspiracies – yet there's never any hard proof of such plots. You'd think some disgruntled conspirator would rat out his bosses, or some member of an evil cabal would experience a crisis of conscience and come clean, or some enterprising journalist would dig up some hard evidence of one of these conspiracies – enough to blow the whole thing up. But it doesn't happen.”

That is not to say that there are never conspiracies or evil plots going on because there are. Roeper agrees:

I don't believe for a second that we live in a conspiracy-free world. Of course some business executives sometimes conspire to cheat their employees and realize huge profits. Of course some government leaders sometimes conspire to mislead their constituents. Of course some individuals and groups act in collusion to commit crimes.”

That's the thing that really interests me. How do you tell the difference between a theory that is something real and one that is perhaps just a figment of someone's hyperactive imagination?

At the end of the day truth is a desirable thing since we act on our beliefs and therefore stupid ones can lead to hurting other people. And this is what fascinates me about why and how we believe what we do and how we know when we have truth.


Robyn said...

My favourite chapter of Debunked was of the book the Secret. I need to get the book back to copy some of it down as I ended up talking to people who absolutely believe everything in the book 'The Secret' and what it had to say!


Morgan said...

I haven't ever read the Secret in it's entirety but maybe I will just to see exactly what he is talking about. But just to paraphrase a section from The Secret video that I have seen;

“The leaders in the past who had The Secret wanted to keep the power and not share the power. They kept people ignorant of The Secret. People went to work, they did their job, they came home. They were on a treadmill with no power, because The Secret was kept to the few.”

These leaders supposedly include people like Newton, Shakespeare, Edison, Plato and Einstein who all knew The Secret but were part of some conspiracy to keep the masses in the dark about it and deprive them from obtaining power. What a load of rubbish. Are we really expected to believe that Einstein was in on some secret plot to hide the source of his scientific success? Einstein wasn't hiding anything. The thing that most great scientists share is a great sense of curiosity, a questioning nature, a good imagination, a sense of wonder for the workings of the universe and a desire to work at unravelling it's mysteries. Einstein's own statements reflect this.

“It's not that I'm so smart , it's just that I stay with problems longer.”

“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science.”

“The important thing is not to stop questioning.”
The reason Einstein came up with great theories wasn't because he was using The Secret to attract them magically and keeping this to himself. It was because he had an insatiable curiosity and could be arsed to be interested enough to look for and work at the answers just the same as anyone else should if they want to be a scientist.

I mean, how does The Secret reconcile itself with this statement by Einstein?

“When I examine myself and my methods of thought, I come to the conclusion that the gift of fantasy has meant more to me than any talent for abstract, positive thinking.” Sorry but the only way that these people could have colluded to keep such a stupid thing as positive thoughts secret all these years is by someone with an overactive imagination making the whole conspiracy up!

I think what irks me the most about this sort of stuff is the thought that the creators of this bullshit are happy to make a living out of deceiving people into thinking they've uncovered something esoteric when all they have really done is repackage the idea of positive thinking! Have they never heard of Norman Vincent Peale or John Kehoe? I'd like to make great wads of money too. If people are this easy to deceive maybe I should invent some ridiculous theory of my own and sell it! The only problem is - I have a conscience!

Robyn said...

I believe in aliens :)